The Elon University football team has been repugnant on offense this season, currently ranking 120th out of 123 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) teams in total offense.
The inability to move the ball on offense gives the special teams unit plenty of opportunities. The Phoenix has 42 punts in five games this season, tied for second in the nation.
For senior long snapper Matt Arnholt, the abundance of punting chances has challenged him to try and achieve the perfect snap. Once he achieves it, he has to repeat it.
“I’ve done it so many times that I don’t have to think about how wide my feet are and anything like that,” Arnholt said. “That’s pretty natural now. It’s more about doing my job of putting the ball in the same spot every time, and I know the right way to do it.
“It’s just what do I have to do in order to do the same thing I did last time, and putting the ball in the same spot every time on punts and field goals.”
For both punts and field goals, a good snap will typically go unnoticed. But Arnholt, or Arny to his teammates and coaches, knows the stakes of a bad snap.
“I can’t snap it over his head, I can’t snap it on the ground,” Arnholt said. “Because if I did, that could cause a touchdown for the other team and lose us a game.”
Led by a legend
Volunteer assistant coach Mitch Rippy knows what snap is needed for a kicker to easily boot the ball.
“The perfect snap is a snap that the holder can control and put down in a proper manner so that I [as a kicker] can kick it,” Rippy said. “It trickles down to me, but really the two steps before it gets to me are the most important. It’s got to get to where I can kick it before I kick it. A nice, crisp, tight spiral so the holder can control the ball, and that gives him a better chance.”
The Elon Hall of Famer ranks in the top five all-time for PATs and field goals at Elon from his playing days (1976-78). He’s in his second stint as a volunteer assistant coach for the specialists at Elon, which head coach Rich Skrosky appreciates.
“Mitch has been great — he’s done it, he’s been those positions, he’s obviously in the Hall of Fame [at Elon] and he brings so much value,” Skrosky said. “At every level, even the BCS [sic: Football Bowl Subdivision] level, most programs don’t have [a kicking coach]. His dedication is something I’m thankful for.”
Rippy uses his expertise with Arnholt and the other specialists, junior punter and holder David Petroni and junior kicker John Gallagher, on getting the small things right.
“We actually practice out here where the laces come back properly so that the laces are not facing the kicker,” Rippy said. “Out here, we practice where the ball turns ‘X’ amount of rotations, so that it comes to the holder and he doesn’t have to spin it. We tried to practice where the laces come back, where he grab it with his right hand and just puts it down.”
As holder, Petroni has seen Rippy’s tutelage impact Arnholt.
“Every kicker is particular ... the lean of the ball, how far back they want it, how far to a side,” Petroni said. “The big thing that’s pretty consistent with every holder is you want the laces out. Arny’s gotten a lot better at that — a year ago, it would be kind of shaky, if the laces came in on the side. Now, almost every snap is perfect laces, and I get it right down for John.”
Gallagher focuses on the trio as a whole, and making sure the timing between the three is just right.
“It’s all about rhythm, and working on the operation between Arny, Petroni and me,” Gallagher said. “Just getting that work in and [Petroni] is a great holder. We’ve worked that through for a long time. The holds are always going to be great, the snaps will be great. I just got to make my kicks.”
Distance makes the snap get harder
A long snap is a tough snap. Field goals typically require 7-yard snaps, while punts require 14- or 15-yard snaps.
Petroni, who has his hands on the ball after every snap, understands the difficulty of getting each right.
“The ideal snap on a punt would be on the right hip for a righty and the left hip for a lefty,” Petroni said. “A tight spiral right on the right hip would be the ideal snap for a punt.
“On a field goal, it’s a little different. It’s actually tougher, because you’re seven yards away, I’m facing sideways, and I have to catch it to the side. I put my hand out, try to give him a spot a foot off the ground, but right over where the hold is going to be.”
Rippy agrees with Petroni, and focuses on the difference in spinning the ball for each snap.
“The yardage is the most important thing, getting the yardage exactly right,” Rippy said. “The longer the ball travels, the more rotations it’s got. So we have to practice getting it exactly seven yards, so that the rotation of the ball is proper. If you get back six inches too far, the ball could be in an improper place.”
Arnholt was the long snapper for field goals in eight games last year, and the experience has paid off in Petroni’s eyes.
“Arny has done a really good job on the field goal snaps, because if a snap is a foot behind me, there’s not much I can do to bring it back,” Petroni said.
Practicing in their own world
Practices for the specialists are much different than the rest of the team. They work on an adjacent field, away from the watching eye of Skrosky, who equates their practice to another sport.
“I talk to them in the building a little bit, but I equate their skill to golf,” Skrosky said. “The art of a great golfer is being able to repeat the same swing over and over. And that’s really what you want out of your specialists, is being able to repeat the same skill over and over, whereas other positions have a myriad of technique.
“So when I do talk to them — and I probably talked to them more last year to set an expectation with them — I challenge those guys, because I do this we have a talented group of specialists. But it’s really Mitch and Coach [Scott] Browne [coaching them], because similar to golfers, you don’t need a lot of voices in their head.”
Arnholt understands why Skrosky — and the rest of the team — leaves them alone during practice.
“We find space on our own to get our work done,” Arnholt said. “We all have, really, just one job, its just we have to do it to perfection every time. Whereas everyone else on the team, like the quarterback, he has a million things to worry about, whereas we just have our job, but we have to do it right every time.”
Skrosky allows the special teams coaches to work on the “technical nuances” of the process, rather than focus on making sure the specialists know how important their roles are.
Arnholt understands the immense pressure on him to get each and every snap right. And now that he’s snapping for both punts and field goals, he’s embracing the pressure.
“I’ve learned that it’s my job, it’s my one job. It comes with the territory,” Arnholt said. “There was a lot of pressure when I stepped on the field at the Wake [Forest University] game, but after the first snap, you kind of learn to tune out the crowd and just go back to what you do on the practice field every day.”